Jamming the Jazz Section

When the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union was put on trial in March 1987 and two of its leaders were jailed, there was some confusion in the West about what had actually happened. Was jazz being banned in Czechoslovakia? Was playing jazz the crime of Karel Srp and Vladimir Kouril, the main defendants at the trial?

To sort out the confusion one has to have some knowledge of Marxism. Marxism in power, that is: not Marxism in books, in the universities, or in opposition. Marxism has been in power in Czechoslovakia since 1948. In 1968, the Marxist regime created a situation by which, had it not been for the Soviet ambush, Marxism would have been turned into an opposition force. Nothing would have been healthier, both for Czechoslovak society and for that nineteenth-century political semi-science itself.

Although Czech society before Dubcek went through remarkable cultural and political ferment, it was still ruled firmly by Marxists and retained many features of Stalinism. One such feature was the elitist and monopolistic artists’ unions. Their leaders, in some respects already heretical, were still not prepared to accept initiatives “from below” that would elude control “from above.” Two lively literary magazines, Kveten in the late Fifties and Tvár in the mid-Sixties, were suppressed with the silent approval of the same Party “liberals” who later, during the short reign of Alexander Dubcek, became full-fledged dissenters. Until 1968 writers like Václav Havel and, for that matter, myself, although popular with mass audiences and perhaps not much worse aesthetically than the “artists of merit,” were not deemed eligible to join the elite as members of the Writers’ Union.

But if the Writers’ Union was elitist, the Union of Composers and Concert Artists was even more so. Its membership was restricted precisely to two top categories: composers of “serious” music and virtuosos. Rank-and-file professional musicians had to join the huge Union of Employees of Cultural Institutions, which, supposedly representing the interests of everyone from theater ushers to assistants in shooting galleries, in fact represented only the interests of the Party. In the permissive atmosphere of the Dubcek year, however, the musicians among these pariahs organized themselves into the Czech Musicians’ Union, and since they did not issue any compromising manifestos, they survived the Soviet military Putsch well into the era of “normalization” in the Seventies and Eighties. In 1971 a group of jazz musicians—for whom, naturally, there had never been any place among the aristocracy of the Union of Concert Artists—saw an opportunity in the Musicians’ Union, seized it, and became a section of that union—its Jazz Section.

During the first few years of its existence the Jazz Section “behaved.” It organized lectures on jazz and sponsored jazz concerts, of which the most ambitious eventually became the Prague Jazz Days festival. Conceived in 1974, this was intended to be a regular yearly event, protected from possible ideological attack by scholarly sounding “themes.” Thus the topic of the first Jazz Days was “The Roots of Jazz.” It seemed safe: to the initiated, however, among both jazz lovers and the more experienced cultural bureaucrats, it signaled future conflicts. “Roots” suggests a seed, not a tombstone for a safely dead form of music, and seeds tend to sprout and eventually bear blossoms not welcomed by everyone.

The aesthetic theory of Marxists in power, as it pertains to popular music, is utilitarian, and virtually all forms of this century’s popular music came from America: a liberal capitalist democracy. None emerged from the “socialist” empire of the Russians. The explanation of this peculiar phenomenon is in the etymology of the word itself: “popular” derives from the Latin populus, “the people.” It suggests that popular music is originally created by ordinary people, not by elite avant-gardes. It may later become sophisticated, and may be disseminated by professional musicians and cultural merchants, but its basic form is not the outcome of intellectual deliberation. Its birth and spread are spontaneous, and spontaneity is incompatible with strict control. Imagine King Oliver being told by some cultural bureaucrat that he must neither use certain intervals of “barbaric” music, as happened to Prokofiev, nor distort the sound of brass by using a mute.

Since most forms of this century’s popular music have come from America, where cultural control is usually restricted to backwoods school boards, and then spread throughout the world, it has always been regarded as dangerous, because ideologically harmful, by Marxists in power. Popular musicians have been labeled “primitive,” notwithstanding the evident complexity of, say, bebop; or “bourgeois,” no matter how proletarian the entertainers in New Orleans brothels, or, for that matter, British punk rockers.

But popular American music is regarded as dangerous only so long as it excites the masses. When an older musical form is replaced by a new one and becomes a collector’s item, a subject of study for scholarly connoisseurs, the older form becomes tolerated, occasionally even supported. It then may be used as proof that Marxists in power are not detrimental to art.

The second Prague Jazz Days in 1975, “Ragtime and Boogie,” included music still acceptable since by then young people were praying to rock ‘n’ roll. But the festival introduced a “Jazzrock Workshop,” which presented a type of rock-influenced music whose appeal was not restricted to the laudatores temporis acti of Dixieland jazz. That performance led to the first open conflict with authorities, who tried, unsuccessfully for the time being, to exclude anything that smacked of rock from the program. Rock, for all practical purposes, had been taboo since the coming of the tanks in 1968, and now was being offered as part of a major musical event.

In 1975 and 1976, the Jazz Days went smoothly: they were devoted, but not restricted, to such themes as “Revivalism and Swing” and “Jaroslav Jezek’s Jazz.”1 But tensions exploded at the fifth Jazz Days in 1977 with the Naive Rock and Jokes Extempore Band’s production of Jaroslav Jeroným Neduha’s “rock operetta” called The Sweetheart of Four Hanged Men. The operetta was one of the more remarkable products of what had become known as “alternative culture,” alternative, that is, to the officially sponsored commodities of the Marxist establishment. Ever since the Soviet occupation “alternative” musical groups had been appearing entirely outside the controlled channels, hand in hand with underground rock groups such as the Plastic People of the Universe. (After years of police harassment, this group was eventually, in 1977, sent to jail, and served sentences ranging from several months to two years.) But alternative culture was not limited to rock music. It also included art—secret exhibitions were held in abandoned barns in villages around Prague; while “alternative” poetry and fiction were published in typewritten samizdat volumes, sometimes by writers of considerable merit.2

So the Jazz Days ceased to be purely jazz events or even purely musical events. This was natural enough because there is solidarity among people who care about art in general, and neither nonconformist painters nor experimental novelists had been able, in 1971, to seize an opportunity similar to that taken by jazz buffs. There was no rank-and-file writers’ union to which a nonconformist section might be attached. When it produced a “rock operetta” the Jazz Section opened its doors to general audiences. One year later, it also welcomed foreign punk rock bands from Poland and Hungary, as well as left-leaning groups from the West (Art Bears and others), and established links to Rock in Opposition, a radically leftist Western movement. The program notes for the ninth Days in 1979 contained a manifesto, The Aims of Czech Alternative Music, and, for the first time, the principles of opposition to the cultural politics of the Marxist establishment were presented to the public in printed form. Ten Rock in Opposition groups from the West were to appear at the tenth Jazz Days, and at the eleventh This Heat from England and three Swedish bands. But both festivals were banned.

What saved the Jazz Section itself from the ban was clever maneuvering by its leaders. They applied for membership in the European Jazz Federation, a UNESCO organization, and were admitted. Instead of directly interfering, the bureaucrats, fearing bad publicity, resorted to harassment and trickery. The Jazz Section was charged with “transgressing the boundaries of its thematic field,” i.e., of allowing rock, not just jazz “proper,” to be played at the events it sponsored.

Living art, however, has always violated the boundaries of “thematic fields” and, in fact, violations as such did not bother the authorities. The trouble was that the section “transgressed” into the sphere of a popular music that, unlike jazz itself, was an object of mass enthusiasm by young Czechs, and therefore under attack by the Party’s firing squads. The Jazz Section’s case was one of “false” solidarity, in the terminology of the bureaucrats.

But solidarity nevertheless. The Prague Jazz Days festival itself was an expression of “false” solidarity, an effort to carry on a suppressed tradition. It clearly harked back to the well-known yearly Prague Fall Jazz Festival of the Sixties, which was banned in the post-invasion neo-Stalinist fervor by bureaucrats who made no distinction between the mass popularity of rock and the special appeal of jazz and subsumed everything played on the saxophone under the category of decadent Western music. In the mid-Seventies the Stalinist fervor subsided, jazz was once again tolerated, and the anger of the gods turned against rock. Solidarity manifested itself again, and the Jazz Section “transgressed its thematic field” by letting rock musicians play at its concerts.

By the end of the Seventies, largely deprived of the chance to sponsor musical events, the Jazz Section turned its attention to publishing jazz journals, books on music, and, eventually, books on alternative culture. The editors made use of a loophole in the regulations governing publishing, namely that publications sold only to the membership of cultural organizations, and not to the public, were subject to less censorship than materials intended for the open market. What the section published, therefore, had automatically an aura of forbidden fruit, and in spite of sales restrictions it reached a great many readers. You may be permitted to sell your stuff to members only, but what is to prevent those members from lending their copies to friends? If in a high school one student belonged to the Jazz Section, the books and periodicals he was allowed to buy were read by practically the whole student body and usually also by the teaching staff.

They were magical to read, although the magic, I am afraid, can be appreciated only by those who have lived in countries where there is heavy censorship. There was, among other journals, Jazz, the “membership bulletin” of the section, a marvelously informed periodical, because young intellectuals in Czechoslovakia are at least trilingual—a necessity for a small nation speaking a unique language—and so reading a great many Western magazines was no problem. There was Situace, a series of monographs on nonconformist artists. Above all, however, there was jazzpetit, a series of books on music, literature, and art that would not be touched by establishment publishers. Twenty-three altogether appeared between 1979 and 1986, among them a pioneering History of Czech Rock ‘n’ Roll, which did not exclude exiled rockers, and a three-volume encyclopedia, Rock 2000, possibly the most comprehensive book on rock anywhere in the world.

But jazzpetit also brought out first-class fiction such as Bohumil Hrabal’s officially unpublishable novel I Waited on the King of England,3 a selection of writings by Boris Vien, works on Surrealism and Dada, on the prewar Czech jazzman and stage director E.F. Burian, a book about the music of the Terezín Ghetto (Terezín or Teresienstadt was the Nazi halfway house between freedom and Auschwitz and the celebrated Ghetto Swingers performed there), an anthology of contemporary American poetry, The Child in the Greenhouse, and other such items. They created a mass readership for alternative culture, in addition to the mass audience of rock music. Another serious “transgression of the thematic field.”

In 1983, the Party decided to deal once and for all with the problem of rock. It launched a noisy campaign against the music, beginning with an article in its political weekly Tribuna; it disbanded dozens of rock and jazz-rock groups, among them the excellent and highly sophisticated Prague Selection of Michael Kocáb. It fired the entire editorial board of Melodie, the only existing pop music monthly, and replaced its editors with know-nothing Party hacks, with disastrous results. It also ordered that all rock musicians pass “requalification exams” in order to obtain a license to perform, even amateurs. Many, of course, did not pass the exam.

At that point, the Jazz Section, for the last time, “transgressed the boundaries.” It printed a pamphlet entitled Rock on the Left Wing, a merciless analysis of the Tribuna article exposing numerous elementary errors by Tribuna authors (Pete Seeger was described, for instance, as a rock star of the Fifties). It also suggested that the regime’s critics were ideologically close to the critics of rock on the extreme right in England. This pamphlet remained unanswered but it seems to have sealed the fate of the Jazz Section.

Soon after the witch hunt began, however, the Marxists realized that rock was too widespread and too deeply rooted to be easily eradicated, and that the campaign, meeting with surprisingly hard resistance among the young, was beginning to backfire. And so, having come to the conclusion that they could not beat them, the Marxists decided to join them. Characteristically, they accepted the ideas of jazz and rock without accepting their most devoted and active proponents. Two government-sponsored programs were launched: a national competition for amateur rock groups called Rock Fest, under the strict supervision of the Socialist Union of Youth (Socialistický Svaz Mládeze, or the SS of Youth, as it is known among the young), and the Czechoslovak Jazz Society, under the control of the Ministry of Culture. Both were richly endowed and the administration of both became more flexibile under the impact of Gorbachevism in early 1987.

The still active Jazz Section, however, remained a pain in the side of the establishment. The history of maneuvers, intrigues, and tricks to which first the authorities and then, in response, the section resorted is too reminiscent of Jacobean drama to be described in a brief article. In the course of the almost bloodless play (there is only one casualty so far: an elderly supporter who died of a heart attack after police interrogation) the Musicians’ Union was disbanded so that the rank-and-file musicians had to join with the museum janitors again if they wanted to be unionized.

The Marxists finally used a worn-out trick against the section: beginning in September 1986, they arrested the leaders and charged them with embezzlement. When that charge was dismissed by the courageously independent Judge Vladimir Stiborik, the authorities added the charge of tax evasion, and when Stiborik rejected that, too, as unproven, Karel Srp and Vladimir Kouril were sent to jail in March 1987 for “unauthorized business activities.”

Srp and Kouril are not themselves musicians but critics and organizers. Before passing the sentence, the judge actually praised their cultural efforts and reproached them only with failing to obtain an official blessing for what they had been doing for so long, for the benefit of culture-loving youngsters. I wonder if there is a comparable case in the annals of justice, outside Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades.

The harassment of the Jazz Section eventually gained attention in the West. To divert that attention, the regime, relying on the notoriously short Western historical memory and on the numerous gaps in Western political knowledge (“We Americans are the best informed people in the world. Therefore we know nothing”—Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back), not only encouraged the two smokescreen organizations, the Rock Fest and the Czechoslovak Jazz Society, to intensify their efforts. They more or less ordered Party organizations to do everything they could to promote the decadent yet now officially sponsored music. Naturally, the leaders of the Jazz Section were not invited to take part in the Party-instigated jazz craze—they would have refused anyway, out of principle. Nor were such pioneering bands as the Plastic People of the Universe allowed to appear at the Rock Fest events, although they placed first in the preliminary taped competition.4 But just when people in the West feared that jazz was being banned in Czechoslovakia, the country was enjoying an orgy of regional jazz festivals—twenty in Bohemia and Moravia alone, an all-time record.

This calculated flood of jazz and rock, welcomed naturally by the musicians, who grabbed at the opportunity while it lasted,5 was then made much of by various Czech diplomats in the West. Mr. Zluva, an official of the Washington embassy, maintained in The New York Times (December 28, 1986) that, in Czechoslovakia, “jazz, the creation of the black people of the United States…is celebrated through the many festivals held throughout the year.” Speaking strictly in the present tense, Mr. Zluva was right. He failed only to tell the readers of The New York Times the historical background, knowing that they would never learn of it.

Karel Srp stayed in jail until January 1988, but a working committee of the defiant section was set up last November. It seems that even the bizarre solution of the Jazz Section problem, camouflaged by the explosion of syncopated music throughout the country, did not quite work. Some Western journalists took an interest in the nasty little frame-up, and the jailed musicians had many friends, some even influential, some even in the ministries, not excluding the Ministry of Interior. In November, the Ministry of Culture, the main adversary of the section, entered into negotiations with the section’s working committee with the explicit purpose of finding a way, acceptable to both parties, of integrating the members of the section into the officially approved jazz and rock life.

The negotiations were broken off by the ministry when enthusiastic supporters of the Jazz Section covered the walls of Prague with posters bearing the section’s logo and the announcement “We exist!”

But by the end of 1987, several new things happened. Unexpected international support came from jazz groups and artists in the West, such as the benefit concert in Washington, DC in December 1987, with the Billy Taylor Trio and Sonny Rollins acting as master of ceremonies. Vladimir Kouril was released from jail in the fall of 1987, and in January 1988 Karel Srp returned home, after much suffering. For writing a letter to President Husák, he spent twenty days in solitary confinement, forced to stand in a cell whose floor was covered with excrement. He immediately resumed his activities. Since the legal situation of the Jazz Section is now more nebulous than ever, the Srp group decided to apply for permission to start a new organization called Unijazz—while also continuing to fight to restore the Jazz Section’s legal status. The statutes of Unijazz define its activities as including not just jazz music but culture in general. Unijazz has already received nearly three thousand applications for membership from old Jazz Section members. A US-based group, the International Jazz Coalition, pledged its support to Unijazz, and so did the AFL-CIO, whose representative, Thomas Melia, visited Srp in March 1988. In May the application to establish Unijazz as an organization was turned down and it is now being appealed.

The case of the Jazz Section, it would seem, is far from over. Every report from Prague agrees that the trial held in Spring 1987 could not take place in Prague in 1988—the effects of glasnost would prevent it. Much depends now on the continuing energy of Karel Srp and his friends, and on their having strong domestic support, about which there is no doubt in my mind. But equally important will be international backing for the Jazz Section, and also, unfortunately, the unpredictable climactic conditions of the Muscovy empire.

  1. 1

    Jezek was the bandleader of the house orchestra of the Liberated Theater of George Voskovec and Jan Werich, the leading antifascist ensemble of the Thirties. Ideologically he was, therefore, seen as somewhat kosher even though he introduced into Czechoslovakia some pretty wild American sounds. But he had also been safely dead since 1942 when, having fled the Nazis, he died in the United States.

  2. 2

    The most impressive was Egon Bondy, whose underground classics, the novels Invalid Siblings and Cellar Works, were published in printed editions in Canada but unfortunately are unavailable in English. Bohumil Hrabal (author of Closely Watched Trains, I Waited on the King of England, etc.) acknowledges Bondy as one of his major influences.

  3. 3

    Soon to come out in the US from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

  4. 4

    It was announced that they would take part in the big rock concert in Prague in February 1987. But the wind of Gorbachevism was not strong enough, and in the end they were not permitted to play. Five of the seven groups that participated, however, played one number each that, as they announced over the microphone, they dedicated to the “one group that cannot appear today.” The audience understood only too well.

  5. 5

    I keep my fingers crossed that nothing bad happens to the boys,” a jazz musician, a former section activist now on tour in the West, told me. “But I need to perform for the public. When it comes to the choice between playing and writing letters to the ministry, it seems to me that, at this point, playing makes more sense.”